125: Using Books to Empower Neurodiverse Kids, with Merriam Saunders, LMFT

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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Most kids with ADHD and/or autism feel so alone in their struggles. They don’t see themselves in their classmates, the movies they watch, or the books they read. They are underrepresented in the media, a truth that is fortunately changing.

In this episode, I’m chatting with children’s book author and founder of ANovelMind.com, a database of books full of neurodiverse characters. Join us for a discussion of how to get kids reading and what books will help neurodiverse kids learn and grow… and feel less alone.


Some of the resources may be affiliate links, meaning I receive a commission (at no cost to you) if you use that link to make a purchase.

Trouble with a Tiny T, by Merriam Saunders

My Whirling Twirling Motor, by Merriam Saunders

My Wandering Dreaming Mind, by Merriam Saunders

Julia Cook’s books (like, My Anger is a Volcano)

All Dogs Have ADHD, Kathy Hoopmann

Focused, by Alyson Gerber

The Boy with the Butterfly Mind, by Victoria Williamson

Subscribe to Clarity — my weekly newsletter on what’s working in business right now, delivered free, straight to your inbox.

Work with me to level up your parenting — online parent training and coaching  for neurodiverse families.

My Guest

Merriam Sarcia Saunders, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist, psychology professor and mom of three neurodiverse young adults living in the San Francisco Bay Area. As an ADHD Certified Clinical Services Provider and author of three critically acclaimed children’s books highlighting characters with ADHD, Merriam’s passion is helping families with neurodiverse children.
Merriam’s books have received starred and recommended reviews from School Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly and she is a frequent contributor to ADDitude Magazine with over twenty-five articles and an essay featured in the anthology My Kid Is “That Kid”. Merriam co-founded www.ANovelMind.com, a guest blog and database of 1,000+ children’s books dealing with mental health/neurodiversity issues. She is a graduate of Brown University and has a Masters in Counseling Psychology from Dominican University. Merriam is represented by Caryn Wiseman, Senior Agent of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.



Merriam Saunders (00:03): It's really important to find not only a story that they can engage with, but also one that they'll feel is realistic because they can, they can sniff out inauthenticity pretty quickly. If it doesn't feel true to their own experiences,

Intro (00:27): Welcome to the parenting ADHD podcast, where I share insights and strategies on raising kids with ADHD straight from the trenches. I'm your host, penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author ADHD, a highlight and mindset. Mama honored to guide you on the journey of raising your atypical kid. Let's get started. Welcome back to the parenting ADHD podcast. I'm so excited today to be talking to Merriam Saunders about neurodivergent kids, books and reading in ways that will help to strengthen and empower them. I get asked so often for books for kids who have neuro differences books for them to read. So we're going to give you lots of resources today for that. Thanks for being here. Merriam, will you start by introducing yourself? Let everyone know who you are and what you do.

Merriam Saunders (01:29): Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. I'm very excited to be here today. So I am a licensed marriage family therapist specialize in working with families who have neurodivergent children. And in addition to that, I am also a children's author. So I have two picture books and a recently released middle grade novel that all three feature children with ADHD in a very realistic, yet positive light. And from that I developed a website co-founded with another children's author, a nurse who's neurodivergent herself, Sally PLA the author of the someday birds. And the website is called a novel mind.com, which is a resource for children's books, that feature characters with mental health and neuro-diversity issues.

Penny Williams (02:28): I love that it's such a needed resource. I love it. Let's start maybe. And just talking generally about how do we support kids with neuro differences through books and through reading, I know some of our kids struggle with reading or kind of resist reading. My own son is one of those. He does not enjoy a page full of text by any means even at 18. So, we've had to get creative over the years, but what, what sort of advice do you have in regards to how we really get them engaged and also really support them through the stories that we offer?

Merriam Saunders (03:08): Absolutely. my children also all three struggled with reading and it's a very common comorbid occurrence that children who are neurodivergent may also have dyslexia. And I think one of the most important things to remember is that being read to has an equal and important results on the brain as reading yourself. And I think that there's so much perhaps maybe too much emphasis put on learning to read independently because when it's a struggle, all it will do is turn the child off from reading altogether and books altogether, they become, they become something that frustrates them and, it's not enjoyable at all. And we all know that these kiddos need as much dopamine in their brain as possible. And so when they're faced with something that's frustrating, they're not creating dopamine and they're not about to want to do it, but if you can find a story and there are more and more being written, and it's very exciting that feature characters that are coping with the same issues as your child, then it can often be a more interesting story for them to engage with because suddenly they, their feelings are validated and they don't feel as isolated.

Merriam Saunders (04:45): It can be a terrific way if you're reading with your child to foster a discussion about the types of behaviors, situations that are in the story that your child might also be facing without the child becoming defensive around that, or feeling shame because they are internalizing that situation.

Penny Williams (05:14): Yeah, it's really important to be validating, they, they really have a sense of being different and struggling. And that validation I think is so key that they're not alone.

Merriam Saunders (05:27): Absolutely a hundred percent. I mean, I think that's one of the best outcomes from reading a story that has a character with similar situations. It can also create a mindfulness around the child's behavior, which is something we're constantly striving toward, right? This is a physiological issue that manifests in an inability to control emotions, behaviors. It's certainly not a willful choice and that's often forgotten, but if we can help the child to understand triggers and different situations that might contribute to the behaviors, then that mindfulness can go a long way in helping the child feel empowered. So stopping the story and asking like, wow, have you ever dealt with this or does this feel familiar? What would you do in this instance can create a discussion around behavior without shame,

Penny Williams (06:36): Which is so important. Yeah. And Tio that helps to work on social and emotional skills by talking through what the characters are going through, how they might handle it, problem solving as well. And there's lots of skill building within that as well that, that kids with ADHD and autism need.

Merriam Saunders (06:58): Yes. And that, especially now over the past year where those social interactions have been extremely limited books can be a way to continue to engage your child in that, that social, emotional learning. And really, especially for middle school age, children who are less likely to be read to, but, if you can curl up with your middle school age child and, and read a novel to them out loud it can be a great opportunity to stop and say, gosh, I wonder why his friends reacted to him that way. What do you think was going through their minds right now? And do you think that it was kind of them to say that, or what would you have said? How would you have responded? These are opportunities to take apart those situations in a really non-threatening way.

Penny Williams (08:01): Right, right. They're learning something, but it doesn't feel like we're teaching them something, if that makes sense.

Merriam Saunders (08:07): Yeah, exactly. And it's really coming from within them. You're not instructing them. Like this is what I would have done, which is often what happens when they come home from school. And, if we're lucky enough that they're telling us what happened at school, which middle school aged kids often don't do then we have a tendency to start with the shoulds, well, next time you should say this, or you should've said this instead, this, these sort of open-ended questions help them to uncover their own solution to a social situation.

Penny Williams (08:47): Yeah. And again, that's building problem solving, that's building stop and think about what you should do and what the consequences are and all of these different skills. I've been doing that for years now, with my own kids shifting from doing for them or telling them what they needed to do to cuing them, to figuring it out and getting it done. And it's so much more helpful to them. I wanted to say, you don't think your kid is too old to read together. My sister, her family, they read all of the Harry Potter books together. The three of them, when my niece was in like eighth, ninth, maybe even 10th grade every night, they read a chapter together as a family after dinner, which was amazing.

Merriam Saunders (09:36): Ah, I love that. My, my oldest is 23. Now I have 23, 20 and 18. And when the pandemic hit, one of the first things we did was to get some old fairytale books. And after dinner, we would crawl up in the living room and I would read to them out loud. And for me, it was such a blessing because these were very squirmy children who would not sit still necessarily when they were younger and be read to like this. So it was kind of a corrective parenting experience for me to be able to do it with them as younger adults.

Penny Williams (10:14): Yeah. I wanted to talk also about some other sort of tools and strategies for struggling readers. You mentioned that they don't have to do independent reading that we can read to them. We had Bookshare, I don't know if you're familiar with Bookshare, but it's online and read aloud books for people who have disabilities. And if you have a qualifying disability, you can access it for free. My sons had access for free for probably seven or eight years to it, and it can highlight and sink, or it can just read aloud. And that has been way more beneficial to him because he does resist that independent reading. And so there are tools out there that can really help with that. And that I think are, are equally effective as you were talking about. And I really wanted to stress that. And, and I think too, kids don't have to read chapter books, even if they're the age of chapter books. If they're more interested in a non-fiction book or a magazine or something, they're still reading.

Merriam Saunders (11:23): Absolutely. There's so much power to storytelling. And storytelling in our lives comes in so many different shapes and forms. It doesn't always have to be about a book actually, because the same areas of the brain light up when you're listening to a story and it, it makes the listener or the watcher or the reader it evokes the same emotions and learning and language processing in the brain. And so even just storytelling with your children about their day having them tell you a story, or you tell them a story about your day and also video games. I know that there there's a lot of controversy. A lot of our children's spend what we feel is far too much time in video games. But part of the reason that they're so engaging is, is the complex storytelling. And I encourage parents to learn about the stories in the video games and then use those as opportunities to digest and pull apart what it is so fascinating about them. What kind of learning experiences are there in those stories?

Penny Williams (12:37): Yeah, absolutely. There are a lot of benefits to gaming. Yes. It can go off the rails, but there, there are a lot of benefits, they're learning strategy and problem solving and executive functioning, and they're getting social interaction. That might be a little easier because it's online and so many things. Yeah. Do you want to shift now, let's talk about a specific books or categories of books that might help in different situations, different challenges that kids might be having.

Merriam Saunders (13:07): Sure. Yes. And of course if, if you don't mind, I'll start with my own. Yep. So the middle grade novel trouble with a tiny T features a boy with ADHD who finds magic in his grandparents' basement and thinks that it's going to solve all of the problems in his life. That most of them he feels are as a result of his ADHD. But when you combine magic and an impulsive thinker, those two things don't necessarily always go hand in hand and he winds up creating a 12 inch high T-Rex in his bedroom that he can't get rid of. And every effort to solve the problem, worsens the situation any winds up with a live plastic headless green army, because the T-Rex bit, all the heads off and then a six inch Thor and they're all at Warren has bedroom and he has a week to figure out how to get rid of them before he needs to go to his dad's house.

Merriam Saunders (14:16): So fun. So it is, yeah, I wanted, I wanted to create a very accessible story that highlighted realistic ADHD problems in a fun, very unrealistic situation that a child could engage with. But more importantly, this boy is, is really talented. He's a talented artist. And so many of our kids are extremely creative especially artistic. And he will discover by the end of the novel, that it's actually his talent for art that will ultimately be the solution to his problems. And a way of controlling the magic and realized that he's not really only about the trouble that he gets into, but he has all sorts of other very strong, positive qualities, including that. He's a really good friend. I love that. So I think it's when looking for books, especially for your middle school age child, it's really important to find not only a story that they can engage with, but also one that they'll feel is realistic because they can, they can sniff out inauthenticity pretty quickly.

Merriam Saunders (15:39): If it doesn't feel true to their own experiences, but if you're reading with them, even that's an opportunity to, to pick apart how, how doesn't this seem real, like, why is this character not responding in an authentic way? And then for the younger readers my whirling twirling motor is also about a boy with ADHD who takes you through his day and all of the various ways that he is getting into trouble until the end of the day, when he's getting tucked into bed by his parents. And they tell them that there's something they need to talk to him about. And he thinks he's about to get into trouble again, but instead his mom reads to him the list of everything that he did right that day. And that that's one of the first interventions that I use with the parents that I work with because we're so fearful and trying to correct behavior constantly all day, that we lose sight of the fact frequently that our kids are doing so many things right as well. And that it's so important to reinforce those things instead and create a mindfulness around those things. Because that's the behavior we want to shape. That's the direction we want to encourage. And also it can really help orient our parenting in a more positive way and remind us that, there's so many great things to love about our children that can often get lost in that in frustration and annoyance and

Penny Williams (17:18): Really important practice for parents of challenging kids really important. When I talked to my son into bed when he was little enough and still let me every night, I would say, I like the way you did something, this one thing today, I like the way you let your friend choose what you were going to play when they came over today or, any little thing. And it really sent him to bed and ended his day on a positive note, feeling good about himself. But it also was an ending reminder for me that there are bright spots and there is greatness there as well.

Merriam Saunders (18:02): That's exactly right. I'm so happy to hear you did that. It does have such a big impact. Similarly, that books companion, my my wandering dreaming mind is about a girl with inattentive ADHD and the same sort of thing where she's losing things and friends and disappointing people because of her inattentiveness. And it really has an impact on her self-esteem. And so her parents fill a Mason jar with, with the opposite of everything. She feels badly about herself. So her inattentiveness, his curiosity and her messiness is creativity. And every night she picks a positive word from the jar and they talk about all of the wonderful ways that she manifests that word because our kids' self-esteem can really be shot when the focus is always on everything they do wrong. So those are my books, but there are so many other great books and more and more being written for the younger children. There are a lot of books by my publisher imagination press Corey's story Baxter turns down his buzz. Julia Cook has a lot of fantastic books about behavior. My mouth is a volcano that can really help bring a mindfulness around behavior and kind of a fun way.

Penny Williams (19:36): Those are great social stories. Yeah.

Merriam Saunders (19:39): Kathy Hoopmann, all dogs have ADHD. That's one of my favorites. I don't know if you've ever seen that one, but it has pictures of dogs doing really silly, fun things that are similar to what children with ADHD do. So it's a very playful externalizing way of talking about behavior. For the older children focused by Alison Gerber is a girl with ADHD. And it's just a straight, realistic story of how it impacts her life. And Alison has ADHD herself. So she really understands Joey picks us while with the keys is one of the first middle grade stories about a boy with ADHD. His Joey is ADHD and that story is really over the top. So it's, it can be a bit much I find, but I think the children appreciate it. There are kids who can relate.

Merriam Saunders (20:41): Yeah, exactly. And I haven't read this one yet, but I'm really excited to the boy with a butterfly mind. Have you read that? I have not. Okay, great. But that's also a middle grade story. I would, I really encourage parents, teachers, librarians to check out the database on a novel mind for particular books. It's got over a thousand books on the list right now and they're sorted by issue. So if you have a child who not only has ADHD, but also anxiety, you can put those two things in the find feature and come up with a list of books by age group that highlight those two issues.

Penny Williams (21:33): And there are so many more issues on here. I'm looking at it now, besides just ADHD or autism, there's depression, anxiety, social anxiety, which I have myself grief and loss down syndrome, bedtime, anxiety, body issues, bipolar adoption. So many things. It's really a fantastic database.

Merriam Saunders (21:59): Yeah, we are. We're trying, and we're constantly adding to it. We're happy to hear of new books. All of these books are traditionally published. So at this time we're not including self-published books, but only because we can't vet them all and just need a third-party vetting source at the moment. But we might increase that at at another time and, and the books aren't they're not endorsed by us. This is just a list. And, so they're not necessarily recommended, but we're working on, on trying to recommend certain books as we read them. That's awesome. There's also, we just started an educator page too, with a lot of resources for librarians and teachers. But I would encourage parents to look at those pages too, because there's a lot of information about how, how to incorporate stories into your parenting and how to use books. Like we're talking about today.

Penny Williams (23:04): Yeah. It's such a great way of teaching and connecting. And I don't think that most of us give it that much weight. We just don't realize it's really powerful. And seeing your list, I'm realizing that there's way more books out there with characters, with differences or the address differences than I realized, which is amazing. I'm so glad that neurodivergent individuals are being more representative.

Merriam Saunders (23:38): They are. Autism in particular is really seeing uptick in children's books. ADHD is lagging somewhat, but there are, there are more and more. And for anyone that, that does add my trouble with the tiny T to their child's reading list I have an educator guide, which does all the work for you for, for parents to just pulls out questions that you can ask about the story mostly around social, emotional learning.

Penny Williams (24:12): I love books that include that, that include a section for parents. Here's how to use this. Here's how to talk about it with your child. That's so valuable and empowering for parents.

Merriam Saunders (24:24): I agree.

Penny Williams (24:25): I was wondering about titles kind of that we all know like the Riordan's thief series.

Merriam Saunders (24:31): Hmm. I have, I have thoughts on that.

Penny Williams (24:34): I wondered because you didn't mention it so

Merriam Saunders (24:39): Well, I have to give props to Rick Riordan'because that series was the book that got my son reading and, so we all pray for that, that book that will finally spark the love of reading and our children and for my son, that was the book. On the other hand, I feel like whenever anybody talks about an ADHD character, that's the first one that pops into their mind. Yeah. And I guess where I had an issue with it was in the end, his ADHD and dyslexia were a result of him being half Greek God. And I felt as though that a was something that kids couldn't really relate to because no one was half Greek God. But also it felt like an excuse, it was a way of sort of, well I'm okay. Because the only reason I have these problems is because I'm half Greek God, and I don't know that just rubbed me the wrong way, I guess. So that was one reason why I wanted to write a story about a boy instead of being magic. He finds magic. So

Penny Williams (25:51): Yeah. So important. I think that whole magical fantasy sort of genre really pulls that age group. And, and that I think is why in a Rick series and some of the others really incorporate that probably because Harry Potter was so popular, but yeah, anytime that we can make it more readily Annabelle the better.

Merriam Saunders (26:14): Yeah. I mean, again, it is they're so well done. And so engaging that anything that makes our children want to read you know, as my absolute blessing, but I also figured everybody knows about those books. And so I want to support some titles that people don't know as much about.

Penny Williams (26:34): Yes, I will be sending all of my coaching clients and I'm posting about a novel mind and such on social media to you because it's such an amazing, amazing database and that I didn't even honestly know existed until you reached out to me. And it's just a question I get asked so often, and I had no idea that there was a list and a really, really thoughtful list. I'm really impressed by the categorization of the different issues and really being able to drill down and find the right book for the right time for your kid.

Merriam Saunders (27:17): Oh, thanks. I'm grateful for the help with spreading the word. And I really just hope it helps people.

Penny Williams (27:23): Yeah, I know it, well, it will help so many families. And I, I wish that these books had been more available when my son was young or really both of my kids, but yeah, especially we just didn't have the amount of social stories and things like that available 12, 13 years ago. And I wish that was different and, but I'm glad that it's different for others. That's always a benefit. Anything else you want to be sure that we talk about before we close?

Merriam Saunders (27:53): I don't think so. I really appreciate the opportunity to let people know about these books.

Penny Williams (27:58): Yeah, absolutely. I'm so very excited for parents. After listening to this, I know they're going to dive in and find some great books for their kids and really empower their kids to feel good about themselves and build skills and really feel empowered, which is amazing for everyone listening, you can go to the show notes and get links to a novel mind Merriam's books. All the books that we've mentioned, I will link up as well. Those show notes can be found at parentingadhdandautism.com/125. And again, I'm so grateful that you shared some of your time and your resources with us and for the end of the episode, I'll see everyone

Speaker 3 (28:46): Next time. Thanks for joining me on the parenting ADHD podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share, and don't forget to check out my online courses, parent coaching and mama retreats at parentingadhdandautism.com.

Thank you!

If you enjoyed this episode, please share it. Have something to say, or a question to ask? Leave a comment below. I promise to answer every single one. **Also, please leave an honest review for the Beautifully Complex Podcast on iTunes. Ratings and reviews are extremely helpful and appreciated! That's what helps me reach and help more families like yours.

I'm Penny Williams.

I help stuck and struggling parents (educators, too) make the pivots necessary to unlock success and joy for neurodivergent kids and teens, themselves, and their families. I'm honored to be part of your journey!

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About the show...

I'm your host, Penny.

Join me as I help parents, caregivers, and educators like you harness the realization that we are all beautifully complex and marvelously imperfect. Each week I deliver insights and actionable strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids — those with ADHD, autism, anxiety, learning disabilities…

My approach to decoding behavior while honoring neurodiversity and parenting the individual child you have will provide you with the tools to help you understand and transform behavior, reduce your own stress, increase parenting confidence, and create the joyful family life you crave. I am honored to have helped thousands of families worldwide to help their kids feel good so they can do good.

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